The Cleary Theory

Some notes on taking book notes

November 08, 2019

I’ve read several books in my time… here’s the note-taking system I wish I’d built 10 years ago.

I like books.

I enjoy reading for the sake of it.

I’ll read anything. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the monumental works of great thinkers such as Charles Darwin, epic, sweeping tales such as Shantaram, ‘13 foods you need to eat in Bali’ articles, or the ingredients list of a bag of chips. Chances are, I’m going to have a pretty good time with it.

More than that, I love learning. I try to rotate through non-fiction books on a wide variety of subjects: business, psychology, science, philosophy, whatever.

I like to to know a little about a lot.

It’s important to me, and I would also think to you that we’re able to retain somewhat of what we read. I want the books I read to either change my world-view or to help me solve real-world problems.

Whether it’s in our career, relationships or day-to-day life, it’d be great if we could put to use all these hundreds of thousands of words we’re reading.

Two oft-repeated maxims on the subject of reading are:

  • “Who we become will become a combination of the people we spend time with and the books we read”

  • And the ever-popular truism, that “all successful people read. A lot”.

That being said, the great Bruce Lee said: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”. I estimate that it also applies to books.

It’s easy to get caught up in speed-reading through the top 100 business books on Amazon. But is there much point if we’re not able to retain and synthesize the information we’re consuming?

I’ve been guilty of doing this for years, but over the past couple, I’ve developed a note-taking system that I enjoy.

Inspired by some of my favourite thinkers, such as Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday, I’ve taken pieces from other systems and built something that works for me.

It’s not perfect, it’ll continue to evolve, but I’ve gotten a lot of value out of it so far.

Here it is:

  1. Choose your book. You should both want to read it and have some level of confidence that it’s of good quality. I don’t recommend just buying the newest books. Instead, buy books that have come highly recommended by people you think of highly. Life is too short for reading bad books.

  2. Before diving in, open up a word document (or Notion/Evernote etc.) and type the title of the book. Read the blurb. Read the acknowledgements and the bio about the author. Read the contents. Then read the most positive reviews on Amazon. And then the most negative. You’re doing this to create a mental map of the book’s content in your mind.

  3. Write down what you already know about the subject. What do you hope to get out of the book? What, if any opinions do you have on the subject?

  1. Start reading. Make a note of each chapter title. Be mindful of where you are in the book at all times.
  1. As you go through the book, do so with a pen. Underline the sentences/circling passages that resonate with you. Have questions? Write them in the margins.
  1. For each page that you’ve underlined something, turn the bottom corner of the page.
  1. Once you’ve finished the book, set it aside and make an appointment with yourself in your diary. least seven days ahead, to write up a personal summary of the book. This is key. During this time, you’re giving your subconscious time to contemplate the ideas of the book. Let them marinate.
  1. Talk to people about the book. Tell your friends what you’ve been reading, what you enjoyed. If you’re excited to do this, you know it was a good book. If you’re able to explain what you’ve learnt concisely, perhaps it was a great one.
  1. On your note-taking/summary day, open up your word document. Do not open up the book yet. You’re now going to write every thing you can remember about the book. Set a timer for at least 10 minutes and type away. This is also key. When you do open up the book, you’ll be able to test your understanding of the material and your interpretation of the ideas.
  1. Open up the book to the first folded corner. Go through the book, using your underlinings as a guide to type up a personal summary.
  1. Take pride in your notes. They will be a unique melding of both your and the author’s ideas. They have value.

  2. Wrap up your notes with a summary of the book. Did you learn anything? Did you get out of it what you had hoped? Would you recommend this book? To who? With what ideas and opinions do you agree or disagree?

  1. Tag your book summary, date it, and file it away in your note-taking app of choice. I like Evernote.

And that’s it.

Sure, this take much longer than listening to three books a week on audible on triple speed. But I find I not only get a lot more out of the books I read, but I’m also forced to make much more mindful choices on what I read.

The great books take longer to take notes on. But that’s why they’re worth it.

The goal of this system is to not only retain the knowledge I consume but to provide a compounding return. I want to be able to construct and develop a unique understanding of the world and of the topics I find interesting. This helps me connect the dots to solve real, concrete problems.

The value in reading and synthesizing the knowledge of one book should add value when reading your next book.

The great thing? You now have a personal repository of book summaries. You can pull up them in a flash to jog your memory, come up with ideas for blog posts, use them to solve problems or send to friends and loved ones.

If you’ve been looking for a note-taking system, I recommend you give at least some of these steps a try. It’s personalised to my interests and goals, and I’m sure it’ll change. I wish you every success in developing your own. I’d love to know what you come up with.


Matt Cleary

Matt Cleary's musings on fitness, startups and tryin' to live the good life. You should follow him on Twitter